updated 4/5/2006 4:33:45 PM ET 2006-04-05T20:33:45

Contract talks between the government and the air traffic controllers’ union broke off Wednesday, and the Federal Aviation Administration declared an impasse.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said the two sides exchanged their final offers Tuesday night but were too far apart on the issue of compensation.

“We have simply concluded that the gap between us is too large to continue these negotiations,” Blakey said.

Now that impasse has been declared, Congress has 60 calendar days to intercede, according to federal law. If lawmakers don’t act, the FAA would impose its last, best contract offer.

The union believes the dispute should be settled by a federal panel, not Congress.

The talks with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association began in July at the end of a five-year contract that expired Sept. 30, 2003, but was extended for two years with minor changes.

Blakey said controllers make much more money than other public servants, control scheduling and hold back modernization.

The guaranteed annual increases under the current contract would make the controllers’ salaries unaffordable, Blakey said. The FAA’s last proposal would preserve base salaries and premiums for living in high-cost areas, but new controllers would earn 30 percent less than what the existing workforce earns.

The union has said the FAA is hostile to controllers and its offer would result in a wave of retirements because it creates a disincentive for controllers to stay on the job.

NATCA issued a press release saying the agency rejected an offer that would save taxpayers $1.4 billion.

Nearly half the current controllers are expected to retire in the next decade, as most of them are replacements for the controllers President Reagan fired in 1981 for striking the government illegally.

Neither side expects a strike.

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